27 January 2020

Music, Stories, and Books

author Jan Grape
author Jan Grape
They say that music soothes the savage beast. I believe it. Especially when the savage beast is human. Music can bring back wonderful memories. Music can make you laugh or make you cry.

I grew up in the 40s and 50s. My mother loved Big Band music but her absolutely favorite music was out of the Nashville from The Grand Old Opry. We listened on the radio every Saturday night. She loved Ernest Tubb and Eddy Arnold. She liked Hank Williams and Little Jimmy Dickins. She adored Patsy Cline and Dotty West and Loretta Lynn. When I happen to hear one of these singers on Country Gold I can be transported to our living room in Post, Texas listening to my mother singing along.

When my parents, Iva Ann and Tommy Barrow, were a young couple first married they lived in a small upstairs apartment in Fort Worth. This was right after I was born and before they divorced two years later. My dad played guitar and a couple of friends joined in including mother who could strum along, the guys all patted their feet to keep rhythm. To keep the downstairs neighbors from complaining, mother put pillows under their feet.

After my mom rremarried and we moved out to Post and I visited my dad in the summer in Fort Worth and he would play ukelate and he and I would sing. Now ukes are popular again. But those memories of my mom and dad are both very precious to me

When my husband, Elmer passed away in '05, I had major health problems. Breast cancer mastectomy and chemo '06, shingles '06, a broken humerus that required a steel plate and 10 screws to repair in '07, an abcess in my colon requiring surgery in '08 it was music that kept me sane. I began going to see live musicians twice a week at my favorite restaurant. It helped to heal my soul and body heal and kept me sane.

What does this all do with stories and books. To my mind when an author makes a mention of the music the characters plays or listens to, I think it makes that character stronger and more real in my mind.

A good example is Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch. Harry loves jazz and has many albums of his favorites that he mentions in every story. I feel I know Harry, a now retired LAPD detective a little better than just his solving murders and maybe getting into physical trouble while doing so.

A successful writer told me many years ago that you should let the reader see, hear, smell, feel or touch on every page. I don't know if I ever do that. I do know I try to invoke reader's senses as much as possible. I do think your characters are stronger and more realistic if you can do this and that's one thing I find with Barb Goffman's short stories. Short stories are harder to give a reader a real sense of the major characer becaause you don't have 250 pages to develop them. Barb does it better than many others I've read.

Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Bill Pronzini, Lee Child all have strong characters in their books. Sue Grafton and Tony Hillerman also. You can see, feel, smell, hear and touch what their characters are doing and you are right there along with them because you believe them.

I want to remember these points myself which is partly why I'm writing this down!


  1. Jan, I also like it when we know what kind of music a character listens to. I don't have to enjoy that kind of music myself, but it does help me hook into the character and gives them another dimension that makes them just that much more real. And it sounds like you had a great musical upbringing!

  2. A nice piece and lovely and amusing memories of your music loving parents.

  3. Jan, you remind me that I need to do more with the music my characters are listening to. A very important clue to who they are.

  4. Jan, my characters listen to music a lot, especially private eye Lucien Caye (a blues fan) whose wife is a songwriter. I play music in he background when I write most of the time. Good article.

  5. I'm so sorry to hear what you've been through! I'm glad you've mended, Jan.

    Seeing how y'all's from Texas, I wonder if you might write an article about the south-of-the-Border legendary X stations. My father often spoke of those outlaw broadcasters slicing through the airwaves with a half-million or more watts.

    Jan, I'm working on a story right now that involves musicians and a concert. We'll see what happens.

  6. BTW, I covered a couple of those south-of-the-Border X stations in my SleuthSayers column, "Goat Glands, Radium, and Dr. Blood". Those were wild!

  7. I hadn't thought of using music to enlighten our view of a character before! Thanks, Jan!

  8. I've been working like a fiend for the past month, rarely coming up for air, so I'd fallen behind on my SleuthSayers readings and only just now read your kind words about my stories, Jan. Thank you.

    I get where you're coming from with music. I had a story out a few years ago involving a kidnapped groundhog called "The Shadow Knows." The kidnapper got really annoyed at said groundhog and played the song "Don't Fear the Reaper" to put the fear of God into the critter. As you can imagine, the kidnapper wasn't the sharpest guy, imagining the groundhog understood the lyrics. I thought the use of the song was both funny and telling. I hope readers did too.


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